Anxiety: Why is it so difficult to beat?

Anxiety is a natural response to new things, people or events as our ancestors from the animal kingdom were physiologically programmed to stay alert towards anything unfamiliar: it could be the end of them, their family or tribes.

As we evolved in humankind, we developed more sophisticated parts in our nervous system, like our ability to think and observe ourselves while we are thinking; by contrast animals (and our ancestors) can only react with pain or pleasure via their senses. We also developed a more evolved and rich emotional ability to feel and respond to each other's feelings via our emotional connections and development of a very rich repertoire in emotional language and expressions.

That led automatically to more exploration and development in our imagination, creating ways to experience more delicious emotions and thought processes i.e. today when we think of what to have for breakfast, even a three-year-old child has learnt she can choose from several options via her earlier experiences of toast, cereals, bread, fruits, yoghurt, scrambled egg etc. But with more new experiences, choices and novelty, our need for a solid foundation of security has also become essential. Just as a tree can grow solid only if it's deeply rooted so will a child grow above her instinctive tendencies to be anxious only if she/he is deeply rooted in a feeling of safety.

Chronic anxiety is often a developmental habit for many of us. As children most of us reacted with anxiety when a stranger entered our house and depending on how our carer (Mum, Dad, Grandma etc.) reacted, we adopted that reaction habit; let's suppose Mum was a bit shy, so she flushed and panicked when the strangers knocked, fidgeted with her ring while standing in the supermarket queue or else stammered while talking to the neighbours; as an observing child, we are being programmed sensorily via feeling her tension, we are being programmed emotionally via adopting her feelings because we are deeply attached to Mum, we are being programmed mentally that strangers are dangerous because as soon as Mum closes the door she relaxes while outside she is always on guard.

On top of that, we can add the child's own anxious experiences of their first day at school, first friendship going wrong, first time at swimming with a strange teacher who does not smile: how the parent reacts to that child's anxiety will either help the child manage it better or make it worse. The anxious parent who handles the child's anxiety with fear or distance to protect herself is leaving the child in an anxious state that is going to deepen to the extent that it can become a trait of her/his personality.

As the child develops thinking abilities, she starts ruminating of ways to cope by herself, she tries to build stories in her head of how she is going to behave the next day with the bully at school, she imagines ways to protect herself by looking at all potential dangers that can happen on her way to school etc.. Now fast-forward this child twenty to thirty years ahead in time: you have an adult who is entering the train ruminating about each individual as she passes them, her brain is scanning the seats for dangerous stuff, like germs, her breathing system is suffocating about the lack of air and imagining herself stuck on that train in an accident and dying... You get the picture very well if you suffer from anxiety!

It is too simplistic to assume that the parent caused the child to become an anxious adult. Each individual has natural anxiety because of our reptilian brain being very active in early childhood and needing safety more; but some children are more emotional so their imagination is more ripe to imagine monsters in the dark or dangers in the playground and the models in this child's life will determine whether she learns to rein her imagination and thereby her anxiety better or not.

Another child could be very active and naturally worrying less: but later in adolescence he encounters bullies or a heartbreak; whether his brain has learnt how to deal with emotions will determine whether he handles that anxiety better or reacts with more fear-prone images in his head and thus starts a worry mind state that can become a habit with him long term.

Another individual might have had the best training in anxiety management in childhood but goes through the trauma of losing a child or suffers a major accident that leaves him in bed for months; this person's resilience and capacity for recovery is stronger than those people mentioned till now, but since he can think, he revisits the trauma scenes constantly because his feelings of powerlessness cause these re-enactments compulsively; trauma causes a lot of fear and helplessness and he might not be able to stop that helplessness becoming toxic and overshadowing his whole life. This is the person whose friends and family would describe them as the happy person who became anxious after the trauma but years later cannot "snap" out of it.

In most cases, anxiety can fade away with time, support, love and safety being re-established in the person's mind; in other cases via relaxation, hobbies, good sleep, time off to just rest, people have found themselves winning over their anxiety.

But on the other hand, even medications cannot beat anxiety if the person's imagination and inner language that fuels that imagination is still highly active. The medications help numb the reptilian brain and the over-activation of the hypervigilance in the nervous system; but as human beings, we are very powerful in our thinking and imagination, so learning how to regulate and balance our inner reality/imagination with external reality is key to staying on top of anxiety.

To end on a good note, a combination of medications (if needed and prescribed by your GP) and some form of therapy/counselling can help with chronic anxiety: a highly anxious person in counselling or therapy will learn how to use cognitive techniques to challenge his inner anxieties about the germs on the train seats or challenge his inner language about people laughing at him; therapy helps with anxiety via learning emotional regulation which may be lacking in the person and that is why as soon as they get a slight emotion of worry i.e. a job interview, their emotional system escalates that emotion to a 100% state of danger and they start feeling panicky and can't sleep for several nights before the interview.

Psycho-education, an important part of psychotherapy, helps the person understand how his brain and emotions function as well as give him the ownership and control to handle this sophisticated brain that we all have been blessed with. Long term therapy where the safe space in therapy and the nurturing presence of a professional, who is helping but not rescuing the person, is often needed by people who have lost their ability to function normally due to the anxiety, for example, a client who does not come out of her house (except for food shopping).

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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